A New Deal Muralist’s Work Lives On

WPA Aquatic Park Bathhouse, Opening Day, January 22,1936

WPA Aquatic Park Bathhouse
Opening Day at the Aquatic Park Bathhouse, January 22,1936
Photo Credit: Courtesy San Francisco Maritime NHP

Denied admission to art colleges, Hilaire Hiler left Rhode Island for Paris in 1919 where he opened a legendary nightclub. At the Jockey Club, the first after-hours club in the Montparnasse District, Hiler painted the walls with colorful murals, and famously sang and played jazz piano with a monkey perched on his shoulder. The club proved wildly successful. Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce, Anais Nin, Henry Miller, Marcel Duchamp, and Man Ray were among the artists and writers on the Paris scene in the 1920s who frequented Hiler’s club and became his friends.

Section of Hiler’s Lobby Mural, Maritime Museum, Aquatic Park

Section of Hiler’s Lobby Mural
Mural by Hilaire Hiler,  Aquatic Park, San Francisco
Photo Credit: Courtesy San Francisco Maritime NHP

 

Anais Nin introduced Hiler to Otto Rank, a close colleague of Sigmund Freud. Hiler attended classes at Rank’s Institute of Psychoanalysis–an adjunct of the Sorbonne. Rank’s psychological theories and the color theories of Nobel scientist William Ostwald would greatly influence the dazzling murals Hiler would later paint at the Aquatic Park Bathhouse building on the San Francisco waterfront.

A joint project of the City and the WPA, the Streamline Moderne building designed by city architect William Mooser, Jr. broke ground in 1936. Working for the WPA, Hiler was assigned to decorate the interior and exterior of the building and supervised a team of artists, artisans, and crafts workers hired by the Federal Art Project. Hiler’s motifs of fantastical underwater scenes used in his murals are also found in mosaics, terrazzo floors, and friezes throughout the 4-story building.

Color Wheel, Hiler ascribed a psychological significance to each color.

Color Wheel
Hiler ascribed a psychological significance to each color.
Photo Credit: Courtesy San Francisco Maritime NHP

Hiler brought everything he’d learned about color and psychology to his murals in the main lobby. But first he painted on the ceiling of the nearby lounge a 47-foot-color wheel divided into 30 colors and hues. Hiler renamed the room the “Prismatarium,” writing that it functions in relation to the world of color much as a planetarium does for the heavens.

Novelist Henry Miller, a contemporary of Hiler, wrote, “Hilaire lives and breathes color. He is color itself. Sometimes he’s a veritable aurora borealis.”

Just before the art was completed, the City leased the building to a pair of restauranteurs who renamed it “The Aquatic Park Casino” and installed garish-colored furniture among many other violations of Hiler’s design aesthetic. Hiler and all the artists walked off the job. Beniamino Bufano refused to allow his sculptures to be installed. Sargent Johnson, one of only two African-American artists working for the WPA in California, abandoned the 140-foot mosaic he was installing on the veranda. It remains unfinished to this day.

Starfish, Hiler Mural Detail

Starfish
Hiler Mural Detail
Photo Credit: Susan Ives

In a scathing letter to his supervisor, Hiler resigned just days before the park opened on January 22, 1939. He was not seen at the opening ceremonies.

Many of the artists found work at Treasure Island, site of the 1939 Golden Gate Exposition, where Hiler produced two decorative maps of Pacific nations in the Pacific House. He then worked  for the Army in the Presidio as a color consultant on camouflage, taught briefly at Mills College, founded a school in Los Angeles, relocated it to Santa Fe, and eventually moved to New York City. Toward the end of his life he returned to Paris where he died in 1966.

Hiler painted on the ceiling of the room he named The Prismatarium

“Psychological color chart”
Hiler painted on the ceiling of the room he named The Prismatarium
Photo Credit: Courtesy San Francisco Maritime NHP

The Aquatic Park building underwent extensive restoration between 2006 and 2009. Restorations of Hiler’s murals and Prismatarium ceiling were completed in 2010.  The building today serves as a maritime museum, the centerpiece of the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park.

Painting Aquatic Park Mural, To save time Hiler began the work on canvas and carried it as far as possible before installation on the lobby walls.

Painting Aquatic Park Mural
To save time, Hiler began the work on canvas and carried it as far as possible before installing the murals on the lobby walls.
Photo Credit: Courtesy San Francisco Maritime NHP

Paint and Politics—the Life and Work of Victor Arnautoff
By Robert Cherny

Victor Arnautoff, Self Portrait, 1934

Victor Arnautoff, Self Portrait, 1934
The artist included this self portrait in his “City Life” mural.
Photo Credit: Robert Cherny

Victor Arnautoff was a prolific artist of public murals during the New Deal, many of which are still in place.

Born in Russia in 1896, Arnautoff was a cavalry officer in WWI and later in the White Siberian army during the Russian Civil War. Escaping into northeastern China, he married and his father-in-law paid for him to attend the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco. His first public mural, in 1929, can be seen in the city’s Old Cathedral of the Holy Virgin.

Arnautoff and his family moved to Mexico where he worked as an assistant to the famed muralist Diego Rivera. Returning to San Francisco in 1931, Arnautoff gained attention by painting a large fresco mural on his studio wall. He then did several fresco panels at the Palo Alto Clinic that remain on view.

Painting the mural “City Life.”

Painting the mural “City Life.”
San Francisco’s Coit Tower, 1934
Photo Credit: Courtesy of the History Center, San Francisco Public Library

With the New Deal in 1933, federal funds became available for public art. In San Francisco, the Public Works of Art Project hired 25 artists to create murals at Coit Tower. Arnautoff, highly experienced in fresco technique, was designated technical coordinator of the project. His mural, City Life, completed in 1934, presents a vivid kaleidoscope of downtown San Francisco at a time of economic and social upheaval.

Arnautoff’s next New Deal commission, a large mural in the Protestant chapel at the Presidio of San Francisco, funded by the State Emergency Relief Administration, depicts historical vignettes and contemporary activities at the military base, including the Army’s supervision of the Civilian Conservation Corps.

Arnautoff at work, George Washington High School, San Francisco, 1936

Arnautoff at work
George Washington High School, San Francisco, 1936
Photo Credit: Courtesy of the History Center, San Francisco Public Library

Arnautoff’s political views moved to the left in the mid-1930s, and he sometimes incorporated social criticism into his art. His largest single New Deal commission was thirteen fresco panels on the life of George Washington, painted in 1936 at the newly built George Washington High School in San Francisco. Funded by the WPA’s Federal Art Project, the murals present a counter narrative to the high school history texts of the time: the panel on Mount Vernon emphasizes Washington’s dependence on slave labor, and that on the westward “march of the white race” (Arnautoff’s description) shows it taking place over the body of dead Indian.

He exhibited at the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition, the 1935 California Pacific Exposition, and the 1940 New York World’s Fair.

 
Mural, “Life of Washington,” George Washington High School, San Francisco The fresco, consists of 12 panels and measures 1600-square-feet

Mural, “Life of Washington,” George Washington High School, San Francisco
The fresco, consists of 12 panels and measures 1600-square-feet
Photo Credit: Richard Evans

Between 1938 and 1942 Arnautoff completed five Treasury Section post office murals. Those in College Station and Linden, Texas, prominently featured African Americans, rarely depicted in public artworks. His post office murals can still be seen at Linden and at Pacific Grove and South San Francisco, California. Arnautoff’s mural for the Richmond, California, Post Office was recently discovered in a packing crate in the post office’s basement. It is being restored for exhibition in the Richmond Museum of History.

Victor Arnautoff, Self Portrait, c:1950

Victor Arnautoff, Self Portrait, c:1950
Arnautoff painted this self-portrait opposing HR 9490, the McCarran Internal Security Act. The Act required Communist organizations to register with the U.S. Attorney General and established the Subversive Activities Control Board.
Photo Credit: With kind permission of INVA publishing house, Russia

In the 1950s, Arnautoff, while teaching at Stanford, was shunned for his leftist views and was interrogated by the House Un-American Activities Committee. In 1963, after the death of his wife, he emigrated to the Soviet Union where he continued to paint and make prints and created three large public murals using mosaic tiles. He died in 1979.

Uncovering California’s New Deal Art

Catalogue from 1976 Exhibition on New Deal Art in California

Catalogue
1976 Exhibition on New Deal Art in California

A daring exhibition at the University of Santa Clara in 1976 began the rediscovery of a buried civilization then itself only forty years in the past.

“New Deal Art: California,” a six-month exhibition at the De Saisset Gallery, pulled out of storage surviving works of New Deal art while pointing to others long ignored in public spaces: a wealth of paintings, sculpture, photographs, and mosaics whose merit had been buried under the ascendant dominance of modernist abstraction after World War II.

The disinterest or actual contempt with which so much of the Art Establishment regarded the figurative art of the New Deal was not entirely accidental. It had much to do with the deliberate erasure of the New Deal ethos that had produced it, though few at that time were aware of it.

Victor Arnautoff, Metropolitan Life (detail), Coit Tower, San Francisco

Coit Tower Mural
Victor Arnautoff, Metropolitan Life (detail), Coit Tower, San Francisco
Photo Credit: Gray Brechin

Much of the credit for the rediscovery of New Deal art belongs to Dr. Francis V. O’Connor who, in 1974, published Art for the Millions: Essays from the 1930s, written by those who worked for the WPA Federal Art Project, still an essential collection of source material. O’Connor served as a consultant for the De Saisset Gallery exhibition along with curators Lydia Modi Vitale and history professor Steven Gelber, who now lives in retirement in Santa Rosa, California. Gelber remembers the exhibition fondly and well.

Dorothea Lange, Tulelake, September 1939

Dorothea Lange, Tulelake, September 1939
Catalogue Number 147

Dr. Gelber recalls today that the artists he interviewed all spoke of the art programs with something akin to love. Government patronage gave them security while enabling them to create art for a broad public rather than wealthy collectors, galleries, and corporate lobbies, as was so often the case when the federal art projects ended.

Two years in the making, the exhibition produced a richly illustrated catalogue containing an extensive inventory of New Deal public artworks throughout California. More important to those now researching New Deal art projects was a unique program of video documentation made possible by an NEH grant that enabled Gelber and Vitale to outfit a van with equipment with which they recorded surviving administrators and artists in their homes and studios. The Archives of American Art in Washington, D.C. houses those interviews. Through them, those involved in the vast programs of government-sponsored art speak to us today.

Donal Hord, Guardian of the Water, Fountain Sculpture, San Diego County Administration Building

Donal Hord, Guardian of the Water, Fountain Sculpture
San Diego County Administtration Bldg

The art reproduced in the museum catalogue and in the February 4, 1976 issue of Francis Ford Coppola’s City magazine demonstrates the impressive range of works that emerged through federal patronage.

A cast stone relief on the exterior of the WPA-built Berkeley Community Theatre, for example, depicts people of all races brought together through acts of creation—an ideal that seemed attainable when government actively supported the arts.

New Documentary on WPA Artist, Tyrus Wong

Pioneer and artist Tyrus Wong

Pioneer and artist Tyrus Wong
“Good thing we had the WPA, because otherwise a lot of artists would’ve starved to death.”

A film honoring the 105–year old artist Tyrus Wong recently premiered at the Castro Theater in San Francisco. Tyrus attended! “Good thing we had the WPA, because otherwise a lot of artists would’ve starved to death,” says Tyrus in the just released film.

From his early artistic work with Works Progress Administration (WPA) Tyrus went on to become the creative force behind the Walt Disney film, Bambi, and later, the classic Rebel Without a Cause. He designed sets and storyboards for Hollywood studios. His artistic work spanned greeting cards and popular pottery designs and, later in life, intricate and colorful Chinese kites. He once exhibited with Picasso.

Directed by Pamela Tom, the film begins with Tyrus’s emigration from China at age 9—he never saw his mother again. When he arrived in the U.S. he was detained for months at the Angel Island Immigration Station in San Francisco Bay.

Support from his father enabled Tyrus to pursue his talent. Teachers at the well-known Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles further encouraged him, as did other WPA artists like Benji Okubo and Hideo Date. Tyrus produced watercolors, lithographs and murals for the Federal Art Project. As he tells it, his success was based on “luck and hard work.” His wife, Ruth, and their three daughters, also featured in the film, attest to Tyrus working late into the night.

Tyrus’s dedication to his art and soulful approach to life and family shine through in the film. His story is another example of a young artist nurtured by the WPA at critical period in their career. Watch for a screening in your area – http://tyruswongthemovie.com/screenings/.

A “New Deal” Romance

Elizabeth and Eugene Kingman Mesa Verde, 1938

Eugene and Elizabeth
Elizabeth and Eugene Kingman Mesa Verde, 1938

The photograph of my parents, Gene and Betty Kingman, taken amidst the natural wonders of Mesa Verde National Park, foretells a love story that lasted 39 years.

My dad, Eugene Kingman, was a prolific artist drawn to the beauty of the American West. During the Great Depression he travelled from his home in Providence, Rhode Island, to capture on canvas the scenic treasures of the national parks.

My mom, Elizabeth Yelm, was a ranger and museum assistant at Mesa Verde at a time when few women worked for the National Park Service. Mom absolutely loved her job and I am ever proud of her for applying again and again until she finally landed it!

She was a bright, strong-minded woman who received a scholarship to study Anthropology at the University of Denver. She appeared in “Who’s Who” as one of the first women there to earn a Master’s degree.

Eugene Kingman painting plein air in the Sierra

New Deal Plein Air Artist
Eugene Kingman painting plein air in the Sierra

Mom and Dad met on one of her guided tours of the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde. According to Mom, it was her storytelling around the campfire that led Dad to fall in love with her. When she resigned from her ranger job a year later to marry him, all of her park colleagues (mostly men) signed her ranger hat.

Over the years Mom and Dad forged an exceptionally strong partnership. Mom valued immensely Dad’s artwork and kept a record of every painting, lithograph, and mural he created, as well as his designs for museum exhibits—his specialty.

Dad earned degrees in Fine Arts and Geology at Yale that combined with a fascination with the national parks, led to some extraordinary assignments. Horace Albright, the first director of the National Park Service, commissioned him to paint seven of the most popular national parks—Yosemite, Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Crater Lake, Sequoia, Grand Teton, and Mt. Rainier—for the 1931 Paris Expo. Dad’s spectacular plein air oil paintings of Old Faithful and Grand Teton are part of the permanent collection at the National Park Service headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Kemmerer Wyoming Post Office mural by Eugene Kingman

"Cretaceous Landscape" Mural
Kemmerer Wyoming Post Office mural by Eugene Kingman

Improving national parks and promoting tourism were among the New Deal’s efforts to grow the economy. In March 1937, The National Geographic published thirteen of Dad’s Yosemite and Crater Lake paintings to illustrate an article on how these parks evolved geologically over millennia.

During the New Deal, Dad was awarded commissions for post office murals in Kemmerer, Wyoming; Hyattsville, Maryland; and East Providence, Rhode Island.

After serving as a cartographer in WWII, he became the director of the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha, Nebraska, and stayed for 22 years. He then got hired as Director of Exhibit Design and Curator of Art at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, where he passed away in 1975.

Mesa Verde, Eugene Kingman

1938 Lithograph
Mesa Verde, Eugene Kingman

After Dad died, my mom moved to Santa Fe. She worked with archeological scholars at the School of American Research well into her 80s.

Whenever I look at the cherished photo of my parents at Mesa Verde, I conjure up the campfire that sparked my parents’ lifelong romance. I’m not sure why Mom isn’t wearing her ranger hat in the picture. That hat meant a lot to her. In fact, I wore it during her memorial service in 2005 when we sang one of Mom’s favorite tunes: “Happy Trails to You.”

Memories of Milton Hebald

Milton Hebald

Milton Hebald, WPA Artist
Milton said “I know how to pose.”
Photo Credit: Harvey Smith

A man of style, dedicated to a life of art, Milton Hebald passed away in January at age 97. Although I had long heard about him from colleagues in New Mexico, I first met Milton at an exhibit of his artwork in Long Beach, California, in 2009. Many memorable conversations followed.

Milton was dedicated to reaching people through art in public places. He generously lent three of his bronze sculptures to an exhibition of WPA art I co-curated in 2010 at the Bedford Gallery in Walnut Creek.

On his way to becoming a renowned sculptor, Milton won awards for his art as a child in New York City. He was the youngest student to enroll in the Art Students League. In the mid-1930s, Milton went to work for the WPA, teaching and producing public art.

He later put his artistic skills to work making models and casting metal in the defense industry during World War II. He was later drafted into the Army.

In the 1950s he won the Prix de Rome of the American Academy in Rome and with his wife, Cecille, began a half-century of living and working in Italy. After Cecille died he remarried and returned to New Mexico, and later moved to Southern California to be closer to his family.

Romeo and Juliet

Romeo and Juliet
The sculpture is among of Hebald’s best known works.
Photo Credit: Harvey Smith

Milton was known for celebrating the classic human form at a time when many of his contemporaries were moving into abstract art. Among his most recognized public works is the much-loved Romeo and Juliet sculpture in Central Park; the sculpture of James Joyce at his grave in Zurich, and the monumental Zodiac Screen he created for the iconic Pan American Terminal at JFK Airport in New York City. (The terminal is now demolished, but the sculptures are in storage).

Milton continued to work daily into his 90s, sculpting small terra cotta figures.  His sense of style was on display when I was photographing him next to one of these terracotta pieces. Striking a jaunty pose and a far off gaze, he commented, “I know how to pose.” During our last visit, a few months before he died, I watched him patiently instructing his great-granddaughter, Cecille, in drawing, while his granddaughter, Lara, looked on.

Milton’s memorial celebration last month in Culver City, California brought people together from across the country to extol the life and work of one of the last surviving WPA artists.

The New Deal’s Forgotten Art Form

“History of Transportation,” by Helen Lundeberg, 1039

“History of Transportation,” by Helen Lundeberg, 1039
This massive petrachrome mural in Inglewood, California was recently restored.

The Federal Art Project (FAP) encompassed a wide variety of art forms—from sculpture and fresco to oil-on-canvas and wood relief. However, few realize that an entirely new medium was invented by an FAP artist solely for use on public projects in Southern California.

American artist Stanton MacDonald-Wright first achieved prominence in the art world when he and fellow artist Morgan Russell co-founded the Synchromism movement, an approach to painting that analogized color to music. These works were among the first abstract paintings in American art.

During the 1930s, while MacDonald-Wright was in charge of the FAP in Southern California he devised an entirely new method of creating murals, which he called “petrachrome.”

The petrachrome process is significant not only to those interested in the New Deal but also to art historians in general. The process was similar in principle to a paint-by-numbers. Cement was first tinted with different pigments corresponding to the different sections of the mural. Next, crushed rock, glass, or tile was added to the mixture, which was then applied to the mural surface. Typically, the different color sections were delineated by strips of brass.

The colored cement was allowed to harden and then polished, creating a bold, striking appearance. Instead of a mural being painted onto a surface, the petrachrome process was designed so that the mural was the surface. Reports at the time claimed that the result “more enduring than marble” and “should last as long as the remaining great monuments of antiquity.”

Once the FAP was terminated in the early 1940s the petrachrome method seems to have disappeared completely, leaving only a handful of examples scattered around Southern California. The most celebrated of these is Helen Lundeberg’s “History of Transportation” in Inglewood. Recently the subject of an extensive renovation, Lundeberg’s mural is 8 feet tall and 240 feet long—making it one of the largest New Deal artworks in California.

Other examples of petrachrome murals can be found in San Diego’s Presidio Park, Santa Paula High School, Upland Elementary School, Santa Monica City Hall, and Canoga Park High School.

The majority of petrachrome murals still exist today. That they, by and large, remain in good condition is a testament to their resilience. I hope to publish a fully illustrated volume dedicated to preserving the legacy of MacDonald-Wright’s petrachrome process.

WPA Posters Inspire A New Generation

Grand Canyon poster by Matt Brass

Grand Canyon
Grand Canyon poster by Matt Brass
Photo Credit: Matt Brass

Inspired by the New Deal arts programs, Creative Action Network (CAN), an online community of mission-driven artists, announced a crowdsource campaign to create a new collection of “See America” posters celebrating America’s national parks.  Within a few weeks about two hundred poster designs hit their inbox, with new submissions arriving daily.

“With today’s digital tools, individual artists have the power to create and share their work as never before. That’s why now is the time to pick up where the New Deal left off, and harness America’s creative energy,” says Max Slavkin, CAN’s co-founder.

During the 1930s the WPA’s Federal Art Project put thousands of unemployed artists to work. FAP poster divisions opened in 48 states, churning out posters promoting art, theater, safety, education, health, and travel. Early on, the posters were hand-painted and produced in small quantities. But in 1938, a poster campaign to encourage visitation to the national parks was launched in Berkeley, California, using new silkscreen techniques that enabled full-color posters to be printed in bulk. The posters, which sold for about twelve cents a piece, were distributed to Chambers of Commerce in towns surrounding the parks. In the 1940s the remainders were sent to the parks. Few original posters survive, but quality reproductions abound: http://www.rangerdoug.com

Luis Prado, Craters of the Moon poster

Craters of the Moon
Luis Prado, Craters of the Moon poster
Photo Credit: Luis Prado

Seventy-five years after the national park posters first appeared, CAN, in partnership with the National Parks and Conservation Association and Posters for the People, revived the “See America” campaign using social media. In January, a collection of the new posters was shown in San Francisco and the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum in Hyde Park, New York. More exhibitions are in the works. The “See America” designs are for sale, with forty percent of proceeds going to the artists.

Here’s one of the WPA posters that appeared on “The Living Dead” (see comment below):

Save Your Eyes WPA Poster

 

 

 

Exhibition Celebrates WPA Artist Leon Bibel

 

Protest with Flag
Watercolor by Leon Bibel, 1945

“Art, Activism, and the WPA,” on exhibit at the University of Richmond Museums in Virginia, focuses on the passionate social engagement of New Deal artist Leon Bibel (1913-1995), whose work depicts “the social ills of racism, poverty, unemployment, and war; the necessity of protest; and the shared humanity of the common worker.”

Art on display includes a painting called “The Lynching,” the lithograph “Unemployed Marchers,” and many scenes of the Spanish Civil War.

Curator Phyllis Wrynn of the Park Slope Gallery in Brooklyn, who knew the artist personally, says Bibel “saved everything.” The exhibition includes documents, photographs, and sketches from Bibel’s 9-year stint working for the Federal Art Project of the WPA. Bibel worked as an assistant to Bernard Zakheim in San Francisco and then moved to New York City and joined the FAP there. The financial security that came with this government job and the sense of being involved in a vital art movement made the WPA years the happiest of his life. According to Wrynn, Bibel told her “It was a miracle to be paid to do what he loved,” and spoke of “the camaraderie among the artists who supported each other’s efforts in many ways, eagerly sharing techniques, supplies, and information.”

Wrynn made a short film about Bibel’s life and work to accompany the exhibit. (See it on-line at http://parkslopegallery.com/html/leon-bibel-movie.html.) Documentary footage, photos, Bibel’s paintings and drawings, and his on-camera reminiscences give a vivid shapshot of the art world in the 1930s. The New Deal art projects and the Artist’s Union are prominently featured.

Like the Bernard Zakheim exhibition held in San Francisco two years ago, this show foregrounds the artist’s WPA connection. Although many artists of that generation spent some time working for the Federal Art Project, this has often been treated as a tangential or even embarrassing part of their careers. The Living New Deal is delighted to see the WPA finally getting credit for nurturing artists’ careers, sponsoring memorable works, and contributing significantly to the development of 20th century American art.

Information about the exhibition and related programs is at http://museums.richmond.edu/exhibitions/lora-robins-gallery/Leon-Bibel.html.